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THE BIG INTERVIEW: aBlogtoWatch owner Ariel Adams on the ever-changing media landscape

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These are tough times for the specialist watch media, but aBlogtoWatch is still expanding and innovating. It has just hired Jay Guller, former publisher of Revolution USA, as director of sales for North America, and is widening its income base with innovative media and consultancy solutions. Rob Corder sat down with the company’s owner and publisher Ariel Adams (pre-escalation of the Coronavirus crisis) to find out more.

WatchPro: Is this a new position that signals a change of strategy or a replacement to keep things on track?

Ariel Adams: First of all, thank you, Rob, for taking the time to ask about aBlogtoWatch. I’ve spent so much time reporting on other companies that I rarely take the time to talk about my own. The Director of North American Sales for aBlogtoWatch is a new position being sliced off from a role previously shared by more than one person, including myself. For a long time, I’ve sought the right professional to represent us in a business capacity here in the United States. Our growth has always been limited by our ability to have enough substantive conversations with clients (namely, advertisers). The level of service we necessarily have to employ to create authentic value for aBlogtoWatch clients is very high, and that speaks nothing of our larger team’s tireless efforts to publish original editorial content every day.

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Having observed luxury media sales as a bystander for well over a decade, I learned early on that choosing honest salespeople who care deeply about their work was going to be a challenge. Several years ago, we started working with Neil Sartori on media sales in Switzerland — he has done a really incredible job interfacing with brands on their home turf. As an English-language publication (I am based in Los Angeles), aBlogtoWatch is still considered by many of the brands to be a “U.S. publication,” despite the fact that the United States is a mere one-third of our overall traffic. Given the high stakes, appointing someone in the United States to work directly with a long list of clients and their needs was a role I simply could not fill until I found someone who could do it better than I can.

Even though Jay previously worked for a different publication, he has been a sincere friend of aBlogtoWatch for years now and someone I’ve conferenced with regularly. It has been a longstanding goal of mine to bring him into our organization. To demonstrate the type of humility he has, his primary concern about joining aBlogtoWatch is that, despite reading us on a daily basis, he feels he still has a lot to learn about digital media sales. “We all do,” I responded to him, the decade-plus veteran of watch specialist media sales.

To summarize Jay’s role at aBlogtoWatch, it is to direct our valued relationships while determining how aBlogtoWatch’s capabilities can meet our clients’ ongoing needs.

WatchPro: What are the different things he will be selling: banners, native advertising, sponsorship, events?

Ariel Adams: Most of the people who visit aBlogtoWatch.com to read about the latest timepieces don’t know that aBlogtoWatch has also transformed into a creative agency over the last few years. Aside from editorial content, our team also provides aBlogtoWatch Services, which can range from advertising distribution to marketing strategy and advertising creative-production. What we’ve discovered is that, if you are a watchmaker with a product that can appeal to a watch collector/enthusiast audience, there are scant few creative or advertising agencies around the world that can properly serve you. Unless a company can create its own advertising and marketing content, having aBlogtoWatch do it is among the most efficient ways available. That’s not surprising given that pretty much everyone on the aBlogtoWatch team a) understands watches; b) understands the watch brands; and c) understands the mentality of watch consumers.

To answer your question, Jay has the responsibility of navigating the complex range of services and solutions aBlogtoWatch offers and effectively deliver them to our clients. The watch industry is and will remain a marketing-driven industry. Today, the majority of that marketing is happening online, and aBlogtoWatch is the most dynamic place around for expertise and reach.

When speaking with our clients, Jay will be armed with powerful tools to help them promote their brands and products, including display advertising, sponsored content creation and delivery, photography, video, and event services. We always like to add to what we can do. For example, we’ve recently started producing t-shirts for brands with original, fashionable designs on them. We have also been asked to curate original watch designs with an increasing number of brands. I’ve seen the evolution of aBlogtoWatch from a media publication to a full-service creative agency, and more recently to being a tastemaker — not only a keen observer of trends, but also a thought leader in the watch space.

I’ll be honest that my favorite marketing tool is one that many brands today are less interested in, and that’s display advertising. Jay has been a real champion of promoting the value of display advertising in the watch media space, and I think with what aBlogtoWatch can offer, he will really be able to impress even past clients. The reason I like display advertising is that if you know how to use it, the impact it can make on those who view it over time can be integral in getting someone interested in a brand. I like to call display advertising “flirtation with the consumer,” because I think that is exactly what it does. Many advertisers have the mistaken belief that people click on banners and then go buy something on a website, when that’s not very likely, statistically speaking. What does happen is that the message in the banner is consumed by the reader (which is, unfortunately, not something you can track), and they think about it for a while. Assuming you give that person another opportunity to engage with your brand while they are still thinking about that message they read in an ad, you potentially have a new customer. If that same person was never seduced by a compelling message in an ad to begin with, they never take the later step to engage with a brand’s products.

This nuanced seduction that display advertising has in the watch/consumer dating ritual provides enormous creative opportunity and fun. When brands understand how to first build and then deploy a display advertising campaign, the result is a lot of people getting excited about the product. That’s real joy right there, and that’s what I hope to create anytime the aBlogtoWatch Services team creates something. Now Jay has the incredible responsibility to share our zeal with both new and existing aBlogtoWatch clients.

WatchPro: How would you describe the watch market right now from a commercial perspective for aBlogtoWatch?

Ariel Adams: I think pretty much everyone in the watch industry space right now is wondering what the market is like for their business. We live in unpredictable times that I think are also inherently transformational. What I know is that aBlogtoWatch continuously helps inform interested consumers about watches that many of them end up buying. We are the genesis of many a transaction that might not otherwise happen. In this way, we are part of the true economy of the modern wristwatch industry.

I also know that reaching our large and diverse audience with relevant marketing messages continues to have a significant impact on a lot of people’s journeys as collectors. The crucial notion is that watch consumers like it when brands speak to them directly and want their specific attention.

Too many brands have a skewed relationship with the idea of advertising and consider paying money to reach a consumer as being something to hide. I’m so sorry people in the luxury industry have had some bad experiences with low-performance media, and I know there are a lot of con artists out there. That said, this is an entirely marketing-driven industry that is reliant on delivering a compelling, high-quality message in ongoing ways to  consumers over time. If you don’t believe me, just ask Rolex.

My conclusion is that aBlogtoWatch is a valuable partner for many clients because we have lots of actual value to offer. Not just emotional or vanity value. An effective sales professional has a lot to work with at aBlogtoWatch, and I’m happy to put Jay at the helm of this ship starting now in 2020.

While it is bittersweet, I think the cancellation of the major watch industry tradeshows is actually going to end up being in our favor. aBlogtoWatch is positioned to help numerous brands reach consumers and retailers with information about their new products. Without the comfort of meeting numerous partners at the tradeshows (and now with some extra budget to play with), we are already starting to be incorporated into media planners’ designs to overcome the lack of exposure the tradeshows offer brands. It will be an extremely tiring year for the aBlogtoWatch team, but if we play our cards right, it could be both record-setting for profit and also a great way for our clients in the watch industry space to sail relatively unscathed through 2020.

WatchPro: You are on record saying you will not follow Hodinkee into e-commerce. Is that still your view?

Ariel Adams: While people in the media space make it a priority to learn how other people’s businesses work, we rarely get the same attention, right? One of the most important things I should probably repeat to our industry colleagues is that watch media titles don’t become stores because they want to, they do it out of desperation. I have gone on record multiple times absolutely admonishing the luxury watch industry for first ignoring Internet watch media, then trying to manipulate it, and then finally taking it for granted. Business done as media in the watch industry is an uphill battle, and not for the weak or those unwilling to fight.

A lot of watch brands often claim that they simply misunderstand new media or that digital advertising is new to them, but I’ve seen a lot of practices in this space toward media in general that never struck me as being particularly kosher. I believe that strong and well-respected press is crucial for any healthy business or industry. Even though they love media, the watch industry, in my opinion. has failed to properly manage its relationship with media. That is an entirely different conversation, but the point is that many watch media titles have been forced into “alternative” revenue streams due to a challenging business environment when trying to sell advertising to the most logical parties.

Hodinkee decided to become a watch store because it was not able to earn enough money as a watch media outlet. It’s just that simple. They and others who have transformed into a store or sales agency would have preferred to remain a pure media business and sell ads to fund editorial operation. Now that Hodinkee is a watch store, they have subsequently discovered that their capacity and authority to be a trusted media partner is shrinking. That is okay and expected, though, as they have a watch store to build up – which is now their primary business.

There are no relevant historical or contemporary examples I have come up with that demonstrate that a company can both be a business that sells people things and also attempts to have an authoritative voice for consumers about that same category of things. Hodinkee’s is a business model that attempts to groom a particular consumer with needs, then seeks to fulfill those needs – it is a known model. Writing about watch-collector behavior is just a facet of that for the time being as vestige of what the company started out as. The watch industry space is in dire need of innovative digital retail concepts, and I think Hodinkee provides a legitimate sales outlet for a lot products. I will never think of them as media, however …. They are more of an expansive catalog, if anything.

aBlogtoWatch has a distinct interest in remaining a watch media outlet. For one thing, we enjoy it. I started aBlogtoWatch in order to facilitate conversations about watch collecting, and becoming a business was a secondary matter. What grew the business was creating a publication about conversations watch-lovers enjoy. Our bread and butter today is still producing content and acting as the voice of the watch collector community – at least, a healthy chunk of it. Trying to change that conversation into one about selling something to the audience doesn’t appeal to me creatively.

That said, I respect and endorse the traditional concept that consumers respond best when they see a clear separation between editorial and advertising content. Most people reading about new luxury watch purchases are, not surprisingly, also interested in buying them. Implied in my remark is that relevant advertising messages are worthwhile to people who come for editorial content. That person merely wants to know what they are looking at, which is why it’s so crucial for media to distinguish between advertising messages and editorial content.

The fine line watch media needs to tread is where being a tastemaker ends and being a salesperson begins. You mentioned e-commerce, which implies that you’re asking if aBlogtoWatch will ever sell things directly to consumers. I posit that we will, but that we will not become a watch store. aBlogtoWatch can and will sell non-watch items that fit within a “gift store for watch-lovers.” I have also creative-directed more than one watch and have more in current development. The crucial notion is that, when aBlogtoWatch tells our audience about these products, we do it through advertising, and I clearly point out that I might make some money if there are sales. It’s really about transparency and respecting the relationship with someone who is a guest to the aBlogtoWatch website. What people want to avoid is feeling deceived.

WatchPro: What is the reach and audience of aBlogtoWatch that luxury watch brands can tap into?

Ariel Adams: I’ve seen enough numbers related to aBlogtoWatch reach and audience statistics over the years that a response to your query could fill a book. When looking at our audience, you see that we reach primarily men, about 30-55 years old, who live in or near the world’s major financial centers. aBlogtoWatch’s audience is very evenly spread out around the world where people speak English, even though the United States is, of course, our single largest source of traffic. To better answer the question of who we reach, do you mind if I point readers to this aBlogtoWatch article that summarizes our 2019 Audience Survey results? Its very telling: https://www.ablogtowatch.com/summary-of-the-2019-ablogtowatch-audience-survey/

The last thing I’d like to say about our audience is that the average audience members is an experienced watch consumer. I’ve come to that conclusion based on a number of data points, including statistics such as over 95% of readers own two watches or more, and that only a small percentage of them are new to collecting. What we’ve come to understand is that, even though aBlogtoWatch may not be where all watch collectors begin their journey, they most all end up as part of our audience if they stick to watches for long enough.

To talk numbers, I’ll just refer to Google Analytics for a moment. With so much information to potentially share, I’ll just look at traffic numbers from the period of the last month. Half of our audience are regular visitors, and half are new to aBlogtoWatch. Users spend, on average, about two whole minutes per page. During February 2020, aBlogtoWatch.com had about 750,000 unique visitors coming to the website. That number doesn’t take into consideration social media channels, where we have well over 500,000 followers across the important platforms. Given these metrics, I feel comfortable stating that aBlogtoWatch reaches at least 1,000,000 people per month.

WatchPro: How do you expect the market to be this year in the United States with coronavirus, trade fairs canceling, and the election?

Ariel Adams: Like the world needed COVID-19 in the midst of everything else, right? What we know is that watch sales are the healthiest when people have reason to celebrate. Economic downturns understandably see fewer people eager to celebrate, and thus luxury watch sales for mainstream consumer demographics predictably drop. Historically, this is also accompanied by a strong rebound effect when economic times improve and middle-income growth returns. Applied to the watch industry, what I tell brands, and what I absolutely believe, is that any brand that invests in marketing now will be the first and strongest to rebound because that is what has historically been true. So that’s the little pep talk for the brands who need it when I speak to them.

The United States is currently the most important importer of Swiss watches by volume, and the it also happens to be one of the most underdeveloped major markets as judged by retail and marketing penetration and sophistication. The U.S. is probably the best place to buy a watch when it comes to price, meaning that buying a watch is attractive both for tourists and locals. It is also a market in which not too many conventions are being canceled (yet). 2020 might be an even bigger deal for the United States watch market because it is (for now) the only place that will have any serious wristwatch trade show events.

The US is, by no means, insulated from larger geo-political events, but despite our fractious political status, we are still a bastion of stability, safety, and business friendliness. It is very unfortunate what COVID-19 has caused both inside and outside of China. The virus has, however, more or less guaranteed that traditionally strong wristwatch markets in Asia and Europe will simply not have the same movement of consumers and thus will face lower sales. The U.S. will also be certain to have boosted performance merely by doing better than traditionally strong markets like Hong Kong or Paris, whose streets are currently less crowded due to coronavirus fears.

What I am really looking forward to in the United States is when both Watches of Switzerland and Bucherer start taking their development of the larger American market more seriously. Ironically, neither of these entities are U.S. companies, but both are the most immediately due to expand watch retail in the U.S. Watches of Switzerland certainly has the lead with some open stores, but with locations primarily in New York City & Las Vegas, they are now just in pretty established sales markets. No doubt, they will eventually see the incredible opportunity that comes with expanding into new territories here in America.

As an American company, aBlogtoWatch will continue to help brands understand the U.S. market, while also reaching consumers here. For example, each time we do an event with a brand and invite the aBlogtoWatch audience, our RSVP lists fill up. People are hungry to experience new timepieces and want to see them for themselves. We’ve gotten the community hungry for product, and much of the time, all brands need to do is give those same people an opportunity to experience them in real life. Having seen the positivity that comes out of the right types of events, I think brands need to keep putting investment into real-world experiences with consumers, especially here in the U.S.

Rob, I want to thank you for giving me a chance to talk about aBlogtoWatch and the news about Jay Gullers joining us as Director of North American Sales. My thanks, as well, to WatchPro readers for taking the time to hear my assessment of the watch industry today, as well as to hear how aBlogtoWatch is a part of the big picture.

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Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder